Project not a done deal

But the wheels are in motion to move ahead on Meres Crossing, a condo-retail development planned for the southern gateway to downtown Tarpon Springs.

Published August 25, 2006

TARPON SPRINGS - Meres Crossing, a proposed showpiece development at the southern gateway to downtown, is not yet a done deal.

Tarpon Springs officials have not officially selected who will purchase a city-owned plot of land that is said to be integral to the proposed mixed-use project.

Yet, the wheels are clearly in motion - with the City Commission and staff apparently firmly on board - to proceed with Meres Crossing.

"I envision this to be a beautiful entrance way to the historic downtown," Jaclyn Kline, the director of site acquisition for AG Armstrong, the project's Tampa developer, told city commissioners last week.

Set on 14.3 acres between Alt. U.S. 19 and the Pinellas Trail, Meres Crossing would include 47 condominiums, shops and, according to city officials, a Sweetbay grocery store.

Kline declined to name the specific retailer, but said AG Armstrong is negotiating a lease with a major grocer.

While nothing is concrete, Kline said the company expects to break ground early next year, and the first occupants are scheduled to move in by the middle of 2008.

Condominiums will likely range from about $230,000 for a one-bedroom to $500,000 for a three-bedroom, she said,

Meres Crossing would cost $30-million to build and promises to expand the tax base for the city and drum up traffic for local businesses, Kline said. By tailoring the design to mesh with the city's historic flavor, she said, the project would promote the city's commitment to New Urbanist development and efforts to become a "destination location."

Commissioners agreed 4-1 to have their staff move ahead with real estate negotiations for the city's land. A formal vote on the resolution authorizing the negotiations is scheduled for Tuesday.

Commissioner Peter Dalacos, who voted no, urged his colleagues to consider other uses for the city's 7.2-acre lot at the intersection of Meres Boulevard and Alt. U.S. 19.

"My biggest concern is giving up this property," Dalacos said. "As a city, we're losing property. ... It was dedicated to the city to be used as a passive park."

Dalacos questioned whether selling the parcel for a three-story condominium was actually a giveaway of public land for the benefit of a developer.

Instead, he suggested increasing the heights of buildings on other parcels to make room for additional residential units.

But Dalacos' comments seemed too late.

The vacant property is one of three "nonproductive" parcels that city residents voted to sell at a referendum in March.

AG Armstrong was prepared to pay $550,000, the higher of prices produced by two independent appraisers, said Charles Attardo, the city's business development specialist.

In June, commissioners voted 4-1 to authorize the city manager to begin negotiating a development agreement for Meres Crossing.

"We gave the city manager permission essentially to talk to them," Mayor Beverley Billiris said. "... The development agreement is contingent on if we sell them the land."

In fact, AG Armstrong did not officially own any of the three parcels until last month.

On July 19, the company closed on the 5.42 acres where the Tarpon Pines Mobile Home park once stood. County records show AG Armstrong paid $4-million to Tampa developer Andrew Hupp, who had bought the property in April 2005 for $500,000.

Hupp, who had been planning to do a mixed-use project, said relocating all the former residents and clearing the property required more than $250,000 and a lot of "sweat equity."

AG Armstrong is scheduled to acquire the second piece of the puzzle - a 1.6-acre parcel - on Sept. 11, Kline said.

The final piece is the 7.2 acres owned by the city.

"It's a very important part of the project," she said. "To squash everything in the 5.5. acres ... in the front is truly not what mixed-use development entails."

Only 1.8 acres of the city's parcel will likely be used, she said, since the rest of the parcel is wetlands.

Commissioner Robin Saenger raised reservations about the prospect of building on wetlands overlooking the Pinellas Trail. Kline said the company would "explore the options of mitigation very closely."

"I strongly favor keeping the wetlands the way they are," Saenger said.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kline said the company can accommodate Saenger's concerns and is considering "perhaps deeding [the wetlands] back to the city."

"I'm very happy and proud to be able to work will the city of Tarpon Springs," she said. "I've been working with the city staff for two years. This is my baby. My company laughs at me because they say, 'You should have an office down there.' "

Other commissioners questioned whether any of the units would be work force housing and Billiris requested an additional appraisal, but otherwise seemed enthusiastic about selling the city's land to AG Armstrong.

"They have been very diligent in working with the city," Attardo said. "It's certainly not a done deal. We looked for other parties to come forward but do I think it's a project that is good for the city - yes I do."